If I asked: “What’s your purpose in life?”, what would you say? Your answer (and, indeed, whether or not you have an answer) will depend on a number of things, including your life experiences, your upbringing, and even your age. I’m in my mid-30s and have known my ‘purpose’ for the last few years. For me, a desire to help others feel the impact of knowing their worth has bubbled up over time, and I’m really enjoying experimenting with ways to fulfil it.
I mention my age here, because it really does play a role. According to the psychologist Erik Erikson, there are eight psychosocial stages in life, and when we reach middle adulthood we enter the ‘generativity vs stagnation’ stage.
This is the point where most people become concerned with leaving their mark on the world, and somehow contributing to wider society. If they don’t act on this desire, they may feel ‘stagnant’. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that this is when some people feel the urge to have children, leaving creations of theirs to live on when their time on earth is over. But, of course, this isn’t the only way to leave your mark.
Put simply, generativity means making an impact on the world by creating/accomplishing things that will benefit others, and/or caring for others. It’s about contributing to society with the hope of leaving things better than you found them. Erikson describes this time in our lives as the moment we realise “I am what survives me”.
The reason this tends to happen during our mid-adult lives is that, by this point, most of us have come to terms with who we are. During our teenage years, we may grapple with our identity, and early adulthood is, according to Erikson, all about forming positive relationships. Once we’re through those phases, content with ourselves and our relationships, we start to think bigger.
It could also be we recognise we’re not immortal, and now is the time to truly make a difference. However it is we get to this stage, once we’re here, it’s helpful to know what we can do to increase our generativity and avoid stagnation, because… well, it’s good for us.
When we develop our sense of generativity, our health can improve. It’s thought that people who believe they can make a difference are more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviours. Relationships can improve too, as we strive to positively impact those around us. We’re also more likely to feel fulfilled and be a more productive member of society, which boosts happiness levels and can even lower the risk of depression.
As we mentioned, some people’s desire to leave a mark on the world leads them to have children. This can be a very literal way to leave a legacy – someone in the world to survive you once you’re gone. If having children isn’t possible for you, however, or simply isn’t something you want, there are plenty of other ways to lean into generativity, and avoid stagnation.
This can happen in various ways. You might want to connect with your local community, finding out how you can support them and make the area you live in a better place – from litter picking to organising a food drive. Or, you could connect with your community online. You could join virtual hands, coming together to share experiences, support one another, and make real change.
Often, when we’re feeling stagnant it’s because we’re struggling to think about how we can contribute to the world. Instead of forcing yourself to come up with an answer, be gentle with yourself and seek out inspiration.
Fall deeper into your passions; go to museums, watch documentaries, and read widely. Try journaling about possibilities, and explore what lights you up. Your purpose doesn’t have to be something grand to be worthy. Take your time and let the answers find you.
An excellent way to stave off stagnation is to learn something new. This time in your life is also a great time to apply your new skill and be productive, a feeling that can give your generativity a boost.
Whether this is a new skill or a skill you’ve had in your back pocket for a long time, passing on your knowledge to someone else can be a wonderful way to increase generativity. It could be a recipe you’ve mastered that you want your family to keep, or knowledge on growing the best tomatoes. Whatever it is that you do well, share it with others.
Giving up your time to help others has a huge number of benefits, including upping your sense of generativity. Find a cause you care about and enquire about ways you can help – it may be making tea at a care home, or designing flyers for your local charity: there’s no contribution too small.
A passion project is usually something you do outside of work that helps you fulfil your purpose. It could be starting a side-business, or creating something you want to leave for others when you’re gone. When you work on it, you’ll likely get into a state of flow that will do wonders for your happiness levels.
The idea of finding a way to ‘leave your mark’ and contribute to future generations might feel a little intense at first, but hopefully reading through these suggestions will give you some food for thought. Know that however you’re feeling, your voice matters. Your contribution matters. You have something wonderful to offer the world, and now’s the time to share it.
If you’re struggling to find your purpose, talking to a life coach could help. Learn more and find a coach on lifecoach-directory.org.uk
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